June 5, 2020

Denise Spencer: Leading Music in a Small Catholic Parish

St. Ann Mission, Manchester KY

NOTE from CM: One thing I wanted to accomplish during Church Music Month was to let us hear from people who are working week-in and week-out to serve local congregations in music ministry. It’s all well and good to talk about our “theology of worship” or to discuss such matters theoretically. But when it comes right down to it, there is a multitude of faithful people in churches and parishes all around the world who love to sing, play, make music, and join together with others to help them do the same, for the glory of God and the blessing of his people.

Our friend Denise Spencer is one of those people. Denise and Michael served together in ministry for many years, just as Gail and I have, and music has been an integral part of how they have worshiped God and ministered to others in churches and at the school where Denise continues to work. Denise now serves her small Catholic parish in this way, and I thought it would be enlightening to see how music is being used to serve the church in a beautiful little Catholic congregation in the hills of Kentucky.

* * *

Leading Music in a Small Catholic Parish
by Denise Day Spencer

Chaplain Mike asked me to write an essay about leading music in a small Catholic parish. What are some of the challenges? The rewards?

I am sure a small Catholic parish faces many of the same challenges as any small Protestant church. Where are the people who are able and willing to work with the music ministry? The key word is often “willing.” Some would be able, but are already overextended in other ministries or are too busy with their lives outside of church. Still others have the ability to help, but are too shy and hold back in self-doubt.

There are days when I imagine our parishioners wish I would hold back myself. But willingness wins the day and I bang out the next hymn on the piano. I take solace in the belief that St. Ann Mission truly needs me, for they asked me to play at Mass well before I joined the Church.

At that time we had one lady leading music with the help of her young adult children. Becky had put her heart and soul into it for years, but the family was preparing to move to another county. Partly because the family was busy building their new house and partly because she knew she would eventually be leaving, Becky brought me on board to substitute for her when she needed a break. As their building project intensified, she asked me to lead music every other week. By the time Becky and family relocated our other parish musician, Jim, had returned from active military duty. A busy man with a large family, Jim was more than happy to let me continue to do music twice monthly on a rotation basis with him.

In my brief time of exploring Catholicism and now being Catholic for three years, I have seen a number of different music situations. One parish I visit occasionally has no music leader at all. Without a director, the pastor bravely does his best — with difficulty — to lead one verse of an opening hymn a capella as the assembly tries (with even more difficulty) to follow. The same attempt is made at a lone verse of a closing hymn, but the offertory and communion hymns are omitted. Since they have no cantors, the lector simply reads the Responsorial Psalm and they skip the Gospel Acclamation (“Alleluia”) altogether.

On the days Jim leads music at St. Ann, he flies solo. His lovely voice and classical guitar skills carry us through the Mass beautifully. When it’s my turn I lead from the piano. Two ladies take turns cantoring the Responsorial and Alleluia for me. Larger parishes typically have a music leader, a cantor, and a small choir. In this situation the choir is not there to do what Protestants may know as “special music,” but rather to back up the cantor and support the assembly’s singing. In each of these scenarios the music is still a simple affair. It can be big and bold, however. I’ve been to Masses at our Cathedral that included a large choir and several different instrumentalists all ringing out musical praise together.

I have already mentioned the challenge of enlisting people to be cantors or choir members in a small parish. For starters, there may not be many people with even the most humble musical skills. Among those who are able and willing, it can be tricky to juggle the ministry schedule. A potential cantor may already be signed up to present the gifts that day, or to collect the offering or serve the Eucharist.

Finding time to rehearse can also be difficult. In addition to leading very busy lives, parishioners might live some distance from the church. Several rural St. Ann members (including myself) make a 20-30 minute drive each week to get to Mass. With people’s full-time work schedules, it can be next to impossible to find a time when even a small group can reassemble from their various home bases around the county for a weeknight or Saturday music practice. At St. Ann we subscribe to a publishing company that offers a CD set of the Responsorial Psalms and Gospel Acclamations for the whole liturgical year. We purchase the CD set and the cantors share it. The cantor for the upcoming Sunday can practice on her own all week while I rehearse the accompaniment at home. Then we have a quick run-through on Sunday mornings before Mass. Nobody has to make an extra trip to town, yet we’ve had ample time and opportunity to prepare.

Introducing and teaching new music to a small parish can require creativity, too, for the same reasons it’s hard to practice. Our pastor doesn’t want me to rehearse with the assembly before Mass begins, and I agree. I want our folks to be able to use that time for prayer and quiet reflection. I have had success rehearsing new music right after Mass. We announce that we will be having a brief practice immediately following Mass to learn a new song and everyone is encouraged to attend. Of course some don’t, but many usually do. They may not know it perfectly by the time we sing it in Mass, but at least they’ve heard it enough to be familiar with it. I keep these practices very short so everyone can soon get to the more important matter of coffee and breakfast in our fellowship hall.

Another factor that has been a trouble spot for me is the fact that in a small parish people are often afraid to sing out, particularly if it is a new hymn or Mass setting and they’re not yet comfortable with it. Jim has greater success with this than I do because he stands in the assembly, accompanies on guitar, and leads well with his solo-quality voice. The people can hear him and they follow. Since I most decidedly do not have a solo-quality voice (or a strong voice of any quality), and since I’m somewhat removed from the assembly by being behind the piano, it’s difficult for me to lead in song. Add to that the fact that I’m so one-track-minded I have trouble playing and singing at the same time and you can imagine what a struggle it can be. I will gratefully state what you have probably figured out by now: the people of St. Ann are very patient with me!

Well, those are some of the challenges of leading music in a small parish. I am happy to report that the rewards are plentiful. I remember when a brand, new cantor stood at the ambo to lead the Responsorial Psalm for the first time. I may have been the only person who, from my vantage point, could see her legs shaking. I knew “nervous” was an understatement, but she did well. I was so proud, and I watched her confidence grow week by week.

Another blessing is hearing the assembly sing a new hymn or Mass setting, especially when they truly like it. When someone comes up to me after Mass and exclaims, “I just love that new song!” it’s music to my ears.

One thing I have come to love about the songs in Mass is the role music plays in the Liturgy. I will admit that at first I was a bit put off by the absence of things I had grown accustomed to. Whether I had played in a Baptist church or in our school’s chapel service, I was used to choosing and playing a piano prelude. In a Baptist church service there would also be a piano or organ offertory, and maybe a postlude, too. And let’s not forget the special music, which might take the form of a solo or a choir anthem. Hymns were written in four-part harmony, and I loved to sing alto.

But before Mass there is silence, as parishioners enter to kneel and pray. In the Mass the emphasis is on participation of the assembly. Hymnals typically include only the melody line, and the assembly sings in unison. There is no “special music.” It’s all special! “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value…as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.” (1)

In St. Ann Mission and in the other small parishes I sometimes visit, there is little opportunity for musicians to stumble into the pit of pride. The music in Mass is not performance-oriented, but is simply one part of the whole liturgical experience. Leaders, cantors and choir are all there to undergird the assembly as it worships through song. “Song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are ‘more closely connected…with the liturgical action,’ according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration. In this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” (2)


(1) Catechism of the Catholic Church 1156
(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church 1157


  1. Who chooses the hymns and the settings in your parish? Do you have a lot of autonomy there?

    • Denise Day Spencer says

      Yes, that’s the really fun part! I do have pretty much complete autonomy, as does Jim when it’s his week to lead. When the Church recently updated the English translation of the Missal and new Mass settings were required, I was able to choose what I liked and what I thought would fit best in our parish. Week-to-week, I look ahead to see what the scripture readings will be, and I try to plan hymns that go with the readings.

  2. That Other Jean says

    I love the fact that the music you play is recognized as an integral part of worship in which the congregation is expected to participate, not something that can be, and often is, mistaken for worship in itself. I’m very glad that you’re challenged in a way you enjoy, and that you’re happy at St. Ann’s.

    • Denise Day Spencer says

      Thank you! Yes, I’ve been very impressed with how seriously the Catholic Church takes the music, and with the part it plays in the overall worship experience.

  3. You’re a very brave woman 🙂

    Thank you for this contribution to Catholic parish life – getting people to sing at Mass is one of those tasks for which the stay in Purgatory is cut short, because you’ve endured it in this world.

  4. Lovely article. I hear so many complaints about RCC parish music being so dull, but my every visit has impressed me with the peaceful atmosphere which is fostered through musical simplicity in beautiful spaces.

    Denise, I would REALLY like to know two things: What is the subscription service you receive your Psalms and acclamations from, and what are some of your favorite mass settings being used?

    The great thing about being in a Lutheran church is we can freely borrow most of your liturgical music, which opens up a TON of resources for us.

    • Miguel, we use OCP’s “Respond and Acclaim” for the Psalms and Gospel Acclamations.

      I haven’t been out and about to hear what many parishes are using. But I chose tune-by-tune rather than going with a complete Mass setting. We use Dan Schutte’s “Glory to God” from his “Mass of Christ the Savior,” and everyone loves it. We have a few Hispanic families, so I chose the “Santo/Holy” by Bob Hurd from his “Misa del Pueblo Immigrante.” For the Memorial Acclamation I went with Owen Alstott’s “We Proclaim Your Death” from “Heritage Mass.”

  5. Denise, the problem in a larger parish (about 400 families, I think) is that many people perceive no NEED to sing in church, counting on everyone else to do it for them.

    I served for a while with a stellar music minister. She used to threaten the congregation (jokingly of course) that if they didn’t sing loud enough, the “sing-o-meter” would trigger a mechanism that would open up the floor and dump them into the basement with the furnace. The congregation always laughed and did try harder.

    When I sang in the choir there, we did do some “special music,” but it was generally things that were in the hymnal and we just added the four-part harmony or, on occasion, an instrumental descant. There were occasional instrumental pieces during Communion so the rest of us could take Communion and then come back and sing. We also did about 45 minutes of music before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, about half of which was sing-along carols and the rest was one of our relatively few chances during the year to do things that were NOT in the hymn books.

    But I agree, in comparison with Protestant churches that have an “anthem” every week, very little music without some congregational participation.

    • Chris, it would be so nice to have a choir for just that reason. I’d love to be able to have some harmony and/or descants, but it’s just beyond us right now. I failed to mention that I usually do an instrumental Communion song. St. Ann also does about 30 minutes of music before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and like your church, a good part of that is all-sing carols.